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Eastwood's 'Invictus' falls short of lofty expectations

Special Photo: Warner Bros. Morgan Freeman stars as South African president Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon stars as rugby captain Francois Pienaar in director Clint Eastwood's "Invictus."

Special Photo: Warner Bros. Morgan Freeman stars as South African president Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon stars as rugby captain Francois Pienaar in director Clint Eastwood's "Invictus."

Invictus (PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

For the first half of his career, Clint Eastwood was regarded as a monotone and highly bankable, but not real deep action star. After making a couple of ill-advised comedies co-starring primates along the way, Eastwood slipped into his auteur phase where he has been residing comfortably for more than two decades.

Eastwood is a man who doesn't have to prove anything to anyone anymore, and thanks to what some would call over-praise from the people who hand out the Oscars, can make any movie he wants, whether it fits his style or not. That's exactly what Eastwood has done with "Invictus."

Of all of Eastwood's "second-half" films, "Invictus" is both his most ambitious and least fulfilling. Starring Eastwood's frequent collaborator Morgan Freeman as former South African president Nelson Mandela, the movie tries to be both a minimalist character study and a sweeping epic and never quite makes it as either. If cut approximately in half, it might make for an interesting History Channel special.

The opening scene marks the highlight of the entire movie. An unseen Mandela moves through the streets of Cape Town in a limousine on the way to his inauguration. On one side of the road white rugby players look on from a plush green field and are told by their coach that life as they know it is over. Just yards away are blacks playing soccer on a rundown dirt patch who gather in exalted cheer. The remainder of the film repeats variations of this same scene and while somewhat inspirational and moving, the whole thing is instantly forgettable.

After quickly realizing that blacks are as equally leery of his unproven and largely symbolic leadership abilities as whites, Mandela integrates his security staff and reaches out to the second-most well-known South African at the time, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).

Raised in a decidedly racially biased home, Pienaar is the captain of Springbok, the country's national rugby team. About to begin competition in the 1995 World Cup, the team is not expected to come close to winning, yet Mandela views the competition as an ideal way to unite his fractured country and leans ever so gently on Pienaar, to help him out.

In most movies that focus on political or athletic tension, this would be the point where the two leads butt heads and provide drama, but not here. Mandela and Pienaar get along fabulously throughout and the only friction comes from extremists of both sides of the Apartheid issue and it is minimal. For all intents and purposes, the movie is a huge love-fest. There is next to zero tension and the overlong length only adds to its overall dullness.

Even Mandela's die-hard supporters wouldn't consider this brief portion of his life worthy of an entire feature film, and that is where Eastwood missed the boat. This is the type of event that might warrant a two-minute inclusion in a full-blown biographical/life-story production. Those looking for something like that might be interested in "Winnie," the 2010 film starring Jennifer Hudson as the title character -- Mandela's former wife.

Eastwood is at his best when he makes movies with grit, grease and blood. Sentimentality, nation-building and hand-holding are not his strong suits. Might anyone out there be slightly interested in seeing Dirty Harry make just one more curtain call? (Warner Brothers)